I took this photograph of the Aral Sea (“Sea of Islands”) from the cabin window of our flight from Tashkent to London back in April. The atlases which fed my young mind back in the sixties and seventies have changed enormously, but it is mostly political boundaries that have shifted, particularly in this part of the world. There are few instances where the physical landscape has changed on quite such a scale as the Aral Sea which has largely disappeared from our maps. This photograph was remarkable because you can actually see water: most of the Aral Sea is now just desert.
The Aral Sea was fed by two rivers: the Amu Darya – the Oxus of antiquity – and the Syr Darya. The latter was fed by the streams that flow down from the Tien’shan mountains (see “Theme and Variations”); the former rises in the Pamirs in northern Pakistan and then forms the border between Afganistan and Tajikistan before flowing through Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan to the Aral Sea.
Or, at least, that is what used to happen. The story of the decline of the Aral Sea is a tale that puts most of the concerns about loss of connectivity of western European rivers into the shade. In the 1960s, Soviet planners decided to use water from the Syr Darya and Amu Darya (“darya” is the Persian word for “river”) to irrigate the semi-arid lands of central Asia in order to grow crops such as cotton. Not only did this reduce the flow of the rivers substantially, but poor design of the irrigation channels meant that most of the water did not get to the crops that it was meant to sustain. The reduced flow of fresh water into the Aral Sea caused it to both shrink and become more saline (it is now as salty as the Dead Sea, according to some accounts). In 1987 the lake split into two separate bodies, and the dried-up area between became the Aralkum desert.
It is a salutary story that, according to the limited research that I have been able to do on the Internet, wholly avoidable. The Russian attitude to central Asia in the 19th century mirrored that of European power’s approaches to their colonies in Africa and Asia, with a mixture of geo-political manoeuvring and economic motives. These attitudes were inherited by the Soviets in the 20th century and, even though experts predicted the dire consequences for the Aral Sea, the irrigation scheme was fixed into the Soviet’s five year plans and no-one dared contradict the Politburo’s decisions.
What is the relevance of this to us? Only that we have just seen the appointment of a Secretary of State for Farming, the Environment and Rural Affairs who said, not much more than a year ago: “people in this country have had enough of experts”.